Just as I Thought

(Literary Masterpieces, Critical Compilation)

Grace Paley is perhaps best known as a poet and short-story writer. She has published one volume of poetry, New and Collected Poems (1994), and three volumes of short stories, including her Collected Stories (1994), which was nominated for the National Book Award in 1994. A keen political presence in the United States, Paley has been vocal in her opposition to war, most specifically the Vietnam and Gulf Wars, as well as to nuclear testing. Furthermore, she has been a strong advocate of women’s rights, and she speaks frankly about the average citizen’s need to speak out about political concerns. She has published extensively on these issues in The New Yorker, Ms., TriQuarterly Review, and other feminist and antiwar periodicals.

The writings collected in Just As I Thought (1998) represent Paley’s ruminations, observations, and frequent indictments of cultural, political, and personal events from the early 1950’s into the late 1990’s. Paley’s leftist political leanings show clearly in all the pieces in the volume, which include introductions to books, graduation addresses, scholarly articles, and interviews with herself. Those unfamiliar with Paley’s life and political agenda will learn quickly about her Russian Jewish parents, who reared her as a socialist, and her involvement with many causes, including world peace, nuclear protest, and women’s rights. The book includes Paley’s insights about the Seabrook nuclear protest organized by the Clamshell Alliance in 1977 and about a women’s rights march from Seneca, New York, in 1983. Paley’s use of first- person anecdotes, however, puts these larger protests and movements into clearer perspective. By including texts that were previously written during the political moment, Paley can also capture the feel of the period, as well as her personal frustrations and triumphs. Yet, despite the positive effects of individual pieces in this volume, Just As I Thought suffers from Paley’s having to organize and make sense of a wide variety of often disparate material. Weakly organized and poorly edited materials create problems with redundancy and clarity, problems the book ultimately has difficulty overcoming.

The reader benefits in some degree from Paley’s decision to include original texts previously published. In her introduction to the volume, Paley rationalizes some of the inconsistencies and overlapping of texts she chooses to incorporate into the volume, noting that she has “left the articles, reports, and prefaces pretty much as they were originally written.” With the exception of very brief contextualizing remarks at the beginning of each of the book’s six chapters, Paley does not comment on the validity of these original texts. By not second-guessing or elaborating on her original text, Paley lets the reader glimpse her (and often an event) without the various lenses of time, creating an immediacy that quickly engages the reader.

Paley’s pieces concerning the Vietnam War offer some of the best examples of how this immediacy works to the reader’s advantage. In “Report from Vietnam,” for example, Paley takes the reader with her to Hanoi, then onward through the Demilitarized Zone, where she journeyed in 1969 as a member of a peace coalition sent to pick up prisoners of war from North Vietnam. Her pro-North Vietnam sentiments are far from the anticommunist rhetoric she believes the U.S. government wants her to recognize. She feels no affinity for the South Vietnamese and uses examples of returning POWs who praise the North Vietnamese for their humane treatment. When she mentions South Vietnam, she describes that country’s ill treatment of political prisoners and the corruption in the U.S.-supported South Vietnamese regime. Because Paley does not add a rejoinder to this anecdotal coverage by including information learned about POWs since the end of the Vietnam War, she preserves a sense of the overall antiwar climate, as well as the rhetoric, beliefs, and concerns of those involved in the peace movement.

This immediacy also causes problems, however, when Paley’s dogmatic rhetoric seems to resist any factual certainties. Paley makes no pretense of being evenhanded in her discussions because, as she states in the introduction, “I am not a journalist.” In her persuasive illustrations about what she characterizes as the positive treatment of POWs in North Vietnam and her conviction that Vietnamese children should not have been shipped to the United States for adoption, Paley provides little data for...

(The entire section is 1873 words.)